Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely

Pointing at the Moon, by Bill Wunder.  WordTech Editions, 2008. 86 pp.

In Pointing at the Moon, his first full-length book of poetry, Bill Wunder provides a wonderfully clear-eyed picture of the Vietnam War, one that avoids both the sensational and the sentimental with which its recording has been burdened. He uses simple, straightforward language and form to underscore, without redundant drama, the rhythms and hardships of life in- country. Though every successive reading reveals something new to admire, some subtlety of allusion, interconnection or image, it is the power of Wunder’s linguistic and emotional restraint which most moves me and which I want to focus on here. In Pointing at the Moon, the weight of what Wunder leaves unwritten is equal to that of what he writes.


The details Wunder does choose to share convey the war clearly: Vietnam itself, its mama-sans, the sharp-knived barbers who will join the VC at dusk, and its imperturbable self-immolating monks; the fraught tedium and cataclysm of the war; and the superstitious, philosophical, hardening boys who were our warriors. But these pictures are offered in the linguistic equivalent of Oriental brushstrokes. Here, for example, in a poem entitled "Fireworks," is Wunder’s version of an entire book or movie's presentation of war's assault on sensibility:

Some nights it's incoming

followed by tracers and flares.


Last week we were overrun,

took casualties, barely hung on.


We sleep till noon, wake up

to powdered eggs and coffee,


drink warm beer in afternoon sun,

nap till dusk, eat meat out of cans,


then get ready for more war.

Two nights back


Owens went out to piss, didn't

come back. Found him next morning


tied to a tree, staring straight ahead

at sunrise slicing through leaves,


bubbled red, and purple

where they cut his throat.


I heard today was July fourth.

While Owens's death is shocking, the greater shock is delivered by this poem's tonelessness, from which we infer the more devastating death of feeling in these victims of daily battle.


Though it is plain that he cares for them and knows them well, Wunder is equally economical in describing his comrades-in-arms. He will not analyze their psychology nor spin their stories; we will be given only snapshots of them, vignettes from which we will have to surmise motivation, emotion and fate. In the book's second section, Wunder introduces us to his companions, of whom he permits us glimpses at odd intervals. Ignacio is someone to whom Wunder pays particular attention.


We meet him in "Dac Tho Village," where, under orders to "burn it all . . . ," Ignacio sets fire to the village with his Zippo lighter. In the ensuing confusion of smoke and sound, he fires blindly and then "moves in / to inspect his kill. As if in prayer / over the body, and its growing pool of blood, / his fingers lift matted hair from the face / of a girl, young as his little sister back home. . . ." It is the mark of Wunder's art that he captures the torment of a gentle soul at war in the simple proximity of the words "kill" and "prayer."


The next poem, "A Telling Silence," shows Ignacio’s Maria writing to "close the latch on their relationship, / hear it click." She, too, sets a fire, burning "that last letter" before mailing it. In " Ignacio Knew," some pages further, Ignacio hears "the metallic finality / that click . . . ." But this sound is that of a booby trap, now armed, that will shatter him if he so much as coughs. The rest of the poem exemplifies Wunder's ability to reduce complexity and drama to its simplest elements:


. . . Ignacio knew

that look on Mad Dog's face

meant it was the end

of crotch rot

and warm, long-neck

Budweisers after

patrol, humid days enduring

the lieutenant's mindless orders,

starless nights worrying why

Maria stopped writing,

images of that burning village,

smoke obscuring

the little girl's splayed

body, blood pooling

right where he shot her.

Ignacio knew

there was only one remedy.

He closed his eyes,

slowly exhaled,

and stepped away.


Here, in a very few short lines, is the whole situation and, in three words, "only one remedy . . . ,"  all of Ignacio we need to know to mourn his loss.


Perhaps his ability to maintain this restraint grows out of Wunder's uncommonly balanced perspective. He never renders judgment on those around him and only rarely on the situation itself. He gives us the war and the warriors without slant, stereotype, embellishment or pressure, and so we accept his version as truth.

And this poet who refuses to assess blame or assign benediction can't be found rehearsing his own wounds, either. The counterpoise of his perspective on himself and his war is perhaps best represented in "Trying to Explain War to My Children." Presented in italics, the poem carries more than Wunder's usual quota of personal feeling: it is full of sadness, painful irony and hints of what Wunder has not yet come to terms with. Even so the drama is muted. And even so the grievous revolves around a startling revelation at the poem's center:


I was just an aircraft mechanic.

I kept F-4 Phantoms in night skies

with their lethal loads. But I wasn't the one

who misread a map, pulled the bomb release

and firebombed a sleeping village.


Just because I wasn't blown up

doesn't mean I'm unscathed.


I was bored most of the time, homesick

on holidays, but I wouldn't trade that year.


Yes, we carried lumps of raw opium

the size of baseballs to melt down, paint

our Marlboros,and snickered when told

"smoke 'em if you got 'em."


I never told you that every time I eat Oreos

I see Jim's mom serving us

a tray of them with ice cold milk, that Jim

died in that war and I still can't visit his grave.


What else do you want to know?


In celebrating Wunder's restraint and balance, I don't mean to say that he can't pull out the poetic stops. I find two actual love poems in this book, their objects airplanes. Here's a particularly amorous segment of one,"C 7-A Caribou":


Camouflaged wings rest

In the cool murk of 4 am.

Green and brown flaps hang


like stiff trailing feathers.

Propellers tilt in the pre-dawn, eager

to slice Indochina humidity.


The crew arrives for preflight

inspection, that act of love.

They stroke rivets nippling


through mottled skin, finger

black engine oil that seeps

from the reciprocating heart, wipe


away hydraulic fluid as it drips

down erect struts glistening

in the glare of portable lights.


These stanzas describe a beloved bird with highly imagistic, specific—and, of course, sexual—language. Though the poem moves on to describe the horrible cargoes that will "fill its belly," it doesn't suggest the emotional numbing that pervades many others.


And I'll close with another piece, placed at nearly the center of the book as

a kind of respite from the harrowing starkness of poems that precede and follow it. In Sanctuary, Wunder lets us sit with him in a moment of quiet and safety, in a place he is willing to experience with his senses full open:


Daylight, dimmed through triple-layered

canopy, settles around me, lightens

the shadows. Closing my eyes, I inhale

moistness, slow my breathing, float

in solitude. No more smell

of napalm singeing my nose.

Instead, a flame-red flower blazes

in the dark crotch

of a moonberry tree, its bright

burning elegance. Gray

arthritic roots knuckle

the jungle floor, fingers

of old men reaching

for cover in a decomposing froth

of dead leaves and soft earth.

To the army, this jungle

trail to Can Tho is just a red line

snaking across a field map. To me,

it's a leafy safe-house

where I sit in my own sweat

and dissolve in shades of green.


Though there is certainly the shadow of death in these lines, what I take away with me is the pleasure of the clean humid air, the vivid pictures of a flower that "blazes in the dark crotch of a moonberry tree" and the "gray arthritic roots" that "knuckle the jungle floor," and, most satisfying, a little time in close company with a poet who knows how to hide himself when that is what the undertaking demands.

The wife of a Vietnam War veteran, Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely says she's getting the hang of retirement after twenty gratifying/distressing years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and happy adventures along earlier career paths. Among other wonderfully small-town volunteer activities, she chairs the Guilford Poets Guild and serves as its representative to the Connecticut Poetry Society.



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